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Classes Resume At Santa Barbara City College Amid a State of Flux

With a new president, upcoming construction projects, looming state budget uncertainties and renewal of the school's accreditation, change is in the air at SBCC.

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Andreea Serban, Santa Barbara City College’s new president, has had to settle into the job quickly to handle construction projects, budget matters and renewing the school’s accreditation. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

With classes resuming this week at Santa Barbara City College, students are stepping onto a campus where — behind the scenes, at least — change is in the air.

In addition to having a new president, the campus is about to witness a large wave of new construction, and faculty and students are sure to be affected by new classroom standards the school must adopt to ensure that it keeps its accreditation, which is something like an “FDA approval” for community colleges. 

Meanwhile, complicating matters is an unwelcome bugbear: the state budget crisis. Because of the stateside financial meltdown, SBCC, which usually receives about 90 percent of its funding from the state, for the past month has almost run out of its own “rainy day” reserves and is girding itself for probable budget cuts. 

The college’s new president, Andreea Serban, whose replacement of the retiring John Romo officially took effect June 2, says she is settling into her position by becoming the position.

“I think of the college every single moment of being awake,” said the Romanian immigrant and the college’s first female president, who came most recently from a community college in Orange County where she had worked since 2006. Before then, she had served for seven years as an SBCC administrator in the areas of information technology, research, planning, and institutional assessment.

Serban has hit the ground running. She is setting her sights not only on the accreditation issue — the school is up for renewal in October 2009, and the new standards are tougher than ever — but also on the intricacies of securing bonds to begin the process of implementing Measure V, a $77 million construction bond approved by voters in June.

For construction, the first order of business this fall will be to relocate the drama and music building into temporary facilities scattered throughout the campus. It will occur in preparation for the renovation of the main building on the West Campus beginning this winter. In summer of 2009, crews will begin construction of a 60,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art School of Media Arts building, into which all media-related disciplines will be consolidated. That facility is slated to open in 2011. 

“This campus is going to look very different 10 years from now, in a good way,” Serban said. “As a result of Measure V, 10 years from now, all our major buildings will have been remodeled and we’ll have a brand-new building: the School of Media Arts.”

On the curriculum front, Serban wants to expand the number of courses offered online, and hopes the school eventually can offer entire two-year liberal-studies degrees over the Internet.

This goal came about partly because the school, which serves 19,000 students each semester (not including those taking adult-ed classes), has little room to grow physically, so must do so virtually. For instance, SBCC’s design for the School of Media Arts building was approved by the California Coastal Commission on the condition that the school, whose parking accommodations are known for their inadequacy, scrap plans for a new parking structure, said Joan Galvan, the school’s communications director.

Meanwhile, Serban’s honeymoon has been virtually nonexistent, thanks to the state budget crisis.

On July 31, two days after Serban was inaugurated, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger responded to the state’s deepening financial mess by ordering that all state employees be paid minimum wage — which, in essence, put a freeze on spending. 

During August, SBCC has been paying the balance of its employees’ salaries with its reserves. The freeze will be lifted — and SBCC retroactively paid — when the Legislature, which is grappling with a historic $15 billion shortfall, passes a budget, Serban said.

She says she hopes legislators get their act together fast: The college can ill afford to run on reserves much longer, perhaps two more months. The monthly cost, she said, is about $13 million.

“I’m actually not worried; it can’t possibly take that long to pass a state budget,” she said. “That would be a statewide disaster.”

In any case, SBCC, which already has shaved 2 percent off of its $85 million budget for this school year, is likely to face more budget cuts, Serban said. She said layoffs remain a last resort. “Preserving faculty and staff is of paramount importance,” she said.

Foremost on Serban’s list of priorities is accreditation.

Community colleges must earn recertification every six years, and because of the steepening standards prompted by the Bush administration’s push for more accountability in public schools, holding onto the accreditation has become more difficult.

As a result of the stricter federal standards, about 40 California community colleges in the past three years have either been issued warnings or, worse, placed on probation. They include Los Angeles Southwest College, which went on probation in early August for its failure to enroll enough Latino students, and San Luis Obispo’s Cuesta College, which received a warning in June for leaving too many administrative positions vacant. So far, just one — Compton Community College — has lost accreditation.

In October 2009, a committee will visit SBCC to assess whether the school remains worthy. The accreditation review is a top-to-bottom vetting process that looks at everything from the way high-level decisions are made to how papers are graded. The stakes are high: To lose accreditation is to lose many crucial perks, such as the ability to award federal loans to students, and to allow students to use the college’s credits to transfer into four-year universities. 

At SBCC, the effort to retain its stamp of approval directly affects students in at least one area: grading. Specifically, the stricter standards involve keeping students more fully informed on what they will learn in any given class, and what it will take to earn a good grade, said Ignacio Alarcon, a math instructor and president of the school’s Academic Senate.

Students in an English course, for instance, might be shown examples of a paper that earned a superior grade, as well as one that received a poor grade, he said.

“Students are going to be told more directly how their work is graded, so it doesn’t seem arbitrary to them, so they don’t think, ‘My instructor doesn’t like me, so I got a ‘B,’” Alarcon said.

Meanwhile, the instructors need to find ways to document what their students have learned for the committee, whose official title is the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

“If we say this is what students are learning, we have to show evidence,” Alarcon said. “Grades are not enough. We have been told they don’t trust grades anymore.”

Serban says the tightened standards are a good thing.

“Imagine that you want a particular service, of sorts,” she said. “You’d want to know what that service is, you’d want to know what you get out of it. … Students are, in a sense, consumers.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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